Awesome People in History: Deng Xiaoping

For my next installment in “Awesome People in History”, let me introduce you to one of my personal heroes.

This guy

His name is Deng Xiaoping. He’s the man who made China the potential superpower it is today. But his real claim-to-awesome is the fact that he was purged and vilified – twice – before he succeeded in taking power. Now that’s tenacity.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Born to a peasant family in Sichuan, he was a member of the Hakka people. You know how for centuries Jews and Gypsies in Europe were segregated from the rest of society and persecuted wherever they went? That’s basically the way the Chinese have treated the Hakka people. So he didn’t exactly have the best start to life.

This was made worse by the fact that as he grew up, China completely fell apart. The Emperor was overthrown, warlords and foreign powers carved up the country among themselves, there was a bloody rebellion practically every year, and the masses were left in grinding poverty.

This is literally one of the less-disturbing images I could find.

Young Deng was sent among a group of students that were supposed to study abroad in France, in the hopes that they could use the knowledge they gained to save China. While abroad, Deng discovered Marxism, and decided to join the Communist Party.

When he returned, the Communist Party had formed an alliance with another political group, the Guomindang, in order to try to reunite the country. But it wasn’t long before the two had a falling-out, and Guomindang troops massacred their Marxist former comrades in the streets. You might think at this point Deng would have hidden in some guy’s basement to avoid being found. But he didn’t. Instead, Deng spent the next two years organizing street protests and a rebellion.

He was more or less this guy.

Of course, eventually the Guomindang caught up to him and he had to flee to the pro-Communist enclave in Jiangxi that Mao Zedong had set up. But even this didn’t last long; surrounded by enemy forces and doomed to obliteration, the Communists under Mao’s leadership narrowly escaped, and made the famous Long March to safety in Yan’an. A journey of 8,000 miles. On foot. Through mountain passes and swamps. Carrying all of their equipment and gear. Followed the whole time by Guomindang and allied armies hot on their trail. And occasionally attacked by nomadic bandits. Small wonder only 8% of the people who set out on the march made it.

One particular act that shows how desperation can make you do anything: the crossing of the Luding Bridge. They had to cross this bridge high over a river gorge, but their enemies got their first, removed all of the planks in the bridge, and set up machine guns on the other side. Oh, and did I mention that the bridge was on fire?

They crossed it anyway. That took guts.

So, once safely in Yan’an, Deng became one of the Communists’ key commanders. As such, he rode Mao’s wave to power in China, and initially supported Mao’s programs to make China a communist utopia. Except that Mao’s programs, well, they didn’t exactly, well, work. They failed. They failed miserably. Like, famines leaving 30 million people dead miserably.

It was about here that Deng Xiaoping began thinking that just maybe Marxism wasn’t the answer to China’s problems, after all. Mao, humiliated by the famine, began letting other Party leaders run the country. Leaders like Deng, who publicly stated, “I don’t care if the cat is white or black as long as it catches mice.” Soon enough, Mao was publicly criticized by the Party leadership and his economic policies were reversed.

What followed is one of the biggest “what the?” moments in history: the Cultural Revolution. Mao, the leader of the Party and government, actively encouraged young people to rebel against the Party and government. Roving bands of Red Guards would steal weapons from the army, which was under orders not to stop them in any way, and smash up anything that was old and kill or torture anyone that was smart. Speaking a foreign language and wearing glasses became capital offenses. Owning a picture of Mao Zedong facing right got you tortured. Most of Deng’s fellow reformers were killed; Deng himself lucked out, as he was merely stripped of office and sent to a factory to be an ordinary worker. His son, on the other hand, was captured by Red Guards and tortured, and was a paraplegic for the rest of his life.

Eventually, Mao himself realized how stupid this all was and sent the army to disband the Red Guards. The young, rebellious youths who had done so much damage were now sent to live with peasant families in order to “learn from work.” Mao’s new second-in-command, Lin Biao, now ran the country in a military dictatorship. But he, too, ended up betraying Mao for power, and when his coup failed he was killed in a plane crash trying to escape to the Soviet Union. And so Mao decided to let Deng Xiaoping back into the upper echelons of the Party. With the top Party brass getting old, Deng became the guy running things day-to-day. But he quickly came into conflict with a group of ambitious Party members known as the Gang of Four. Which was bad for Deng, because one of the Four was Mao’s wife. Soon, they accused him of going back to his old “capitalist-road” habits, and when Deng’s public self-criticism was deemed not good enough, he was once again purged, living under virtual house arrest as China’;s propaganda machine pumped out a “Criticize Deng Xiaoping” campaign.

The text reads, "Deepen the criticism of Deng Xiaoping, strike against the right deviationist wind of reversing verdicts."

Schoolchildren were literally taught to sing songs and write poems about how wrong and evil Deng was. That must have been tough to endure. But after Mao died, his successor, Hua Guofeng, pardoned him and arrested the Gang of Four. Little by little over the next three years, Deng built up his support in the Party until he had more actual power than Hua. Deng began rewriting the Party’s history and ideology. Mao, still revered as the country’s founder, was judged to have been “mistaken” in the later years of his life. Deng Xiaoping Theory, which called for “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”, was written into the new constitution.

The test reads: "Study is the basis of progress, Deng Xiaoping." From villain worthy of criticism to wise man whose quotes are promoted as dogma. What a turnaround.

It was Deng who introduced limited free market economics to “Communist” China and opened the doors to trade with the West. It was Deng who began the policies that led to China being one of America’s biggest trade partners. It was Deng who helped orchestrate the reunification of Hong Kong to China under the “one country, two systems” principle. China is what it is today because of him. Because this man always persevered with a smile on his face and never gave up.

Information is stuff I gathered from reading about Deng in various books, none of which I can remember off-hand, sadly. Please don’t sue. Images from Wikipedia, ChinesePosters.net, Ohio State University, Moonbattery, and ConnaughtsRevolution.com.

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4 Responses to Awesome People in History: Deng Xiaoping

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